Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai
By Michael Dylan Foster
University of California Press, 291 pages, $22
Though Japanese things have been a part of the American landscape for decades, its culture — and especially its traditional culture — has been largely misrepresented, filtered as they have been through samurai films, anime and manga, and horribly inaccurate novels such as James Clavell's Shogun.
There have, however, been encouraging trends aimed at dispelling these cultural myths, one of them being the increasing number of books being published in English about Japan's extremely rich storehouse of folklore.
One of the most bizarre and fascinating aspects of this traditional folklore is yokai, the horde of traditional monsters and ghosts that haunt legends, woodblock prints, and old picture scrolls. These yokai are the subject of Pandemonium and Parade, a new book by Michael Dylan Foster.
Unlike the generic and amorphous Western concepts of "monster," the yokai are many and varied, usually numbering at above 200. Each has been illustrated and described in terms of its habitat, behavior, and origin. Foster's book traces the history of belief (and unbelief) in these spooks, from early depictions in story collections and picture scrolls in the 12th century, through their inclusion in Edo period (1603-1868) encyclopedias, to the folklore studies movement and popularization in Japanese mass media.
Foster does an admirable job describing a few typical yokai, enabling the uninitiated reader to get a general feel for them. He highlights how they play on cultural fears, anxieties, and taboos. He illuminates how their depiction as comical, grotesque, and bizarre transformed the fear they inspired into something that can be known and laughed at. And he explores how their presence today is a nostalgic and living link to a longed-for past.
Perhaps the most interesting thing is the role of yokai in expressing wonder and curiosity. yokai are both weird, provoking us to ask "Why is that the way it is?" and mysterious, evoking a sense of transcendence and otherworldliness.
As monsters and ghosts, they remind us that we are not as knowledgeable or as strong as we think we are, and that there is much in the world that we do not presently — and perhaps never can — understand.
Pandemonium and Parade addresses these themes thoroughly and insightfully, exploring not only the phenomenon of yokai but also the various other ways in which the Japanese have experienced the mysterious and the weird. Far from evaporating in the harsh electric lights of modernity, the apparitions of Japan have become symbols of a cultural heritage, used as corporate logos, symbols of local tourism, and emblems of rural revitalization.
As mentioned above, Foster's book is part of a burgeoning collection of materials on Japanese folklore published in the past few years, as well as into the near future. Others of note (to name a small few) are Stephen Addiss' Japanese Ghosts and Demons, Gerald Figal's Civilization and Monsters, Kunio Yanagita's Legends of Tono, and the website The Obakemono Project [obakemono.com]. These works illuminate not only cultural truths of a particular nation, but aspects of universal human experience.